Making Distant Futures: Implementing Geological Disposal of Nuclear Waste in the UK and Finland
Thesis or dissertation
University of Exeter
This thesis explores the making of distant futures through two nuclear waste disposal projects. Geological disposal of nuclear waste (GD) has enjoyed a technopolitical consensus for decades as the best available method for the long-term management of hazardous radioactive material, yet, to date, no geological repository facilities exist anywhere in the world. These ‘disposal facilities’ are expected to seclude nuclear waste from the environment for up to one million years, raising challenges for technical knowledge production, policy implementation and public expectations. Examining the proposed implementation of GD in the UK and Finland, this thesis focuses on the ways in which the management of nuclear waste is crafted in the present day and projected on, million of years into the future, as necessitated by the waste half- lives and as demanded by regulatory practice. In exploring these two national contexts, the thesis traces how knowledge is made about distant futures that exist beyond contemporary knowledge making capacity. As a contribution to limited ethnographic discussion on nuclear waste matters, the making of distant nuclear futures is examined in spaces that have been overlooked in sociological literatures on GD e.g. materials science laboratories. The thesis draws from actor-network approaches, sociology of time and feminist STS literature to develop a ‘comparative-conversationalist’ framework. This approach enabled the comparison of wildly different cases by bringing them into conversation rather than direct comparison with each other. Based on participant-observations in two university research labs; interviews with civil servants, university researchers, technical consultants, regulators and industry representatives; and documentary analysis, I trace practices through which the future is made safe, and, nuclear wastes crafted as manageable. The thesis will demonstrate how future making around nuclear waste varies over time and space. I propose that, because of the very distant future that GD concerns, we should discuss the safety aspects of GD and the ability of disposal facilities to contain wastes as ‘real unrealised present possibilities’. Towards this, I develop the notion of contain-ability. Contain-ability directs attention towards the relational makings of safety in the present, and the uncertainty of containment in the very distant future. It underlines safety as an emergent feature rather than an inherent property of disposal concepts and facilities achieved by engineers. 3 Overall then, the thesis demonstrates that a distant nuclear future is a crafted through situated makings that depend on available sociotechnical conditions, including: geological environments; the scale and complexity of nuclear industries and waste inventories; available financial resources and cultural reserves; and imaginations of wastes, nuclear futures and pasts. The successes and failures of policies for the implementation of GD cannot be construed simply through public acceptance or opposition arguments and more attention needs to be directed to the contingencies of scientific knowledge production and future making.
PhD in Sociology